The east savanna trail leads from the ridgetop downhill to Brush Creek. At a bluff overlooking the creek the trail turns 90 degrees and runs south to the creek bottom. On this bluff Bill and I found a small population of wild hyacinth, Camassia scilloides, when we purchased Timberhill. A native of open white oak woodlands Camassia, produces a loose cluster of pale blue flowers atop the leafless stem in late April and May. The stem grows from a basal cluster of long, narrow leaves. After we thinned the oak woodland and implemented prescribed fire the Camassia began spreading. It jumped the trail into a south facing hillside then into the opposite north facing hillside. Now the pale blue blossoms cover the hillsides on both sides of the trail each spring.
Camassia bulbs were a staple food of many Native Americans. Bulbs were collected after flowering and roasted between hot stones in earthen pits. They revived the starving Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery party when they came off the Lolo Trail. Supplied to the explorers by the Nez Perce one of the explorers described cooked Camassia quamash bulbs as having “the appearance of baked pears, and are of an agreeable sweet taste.” Cooking not only improves the texture and flavor of Camassia bulbs but it converts inulin, an indigestible sugar in the raw bulb to fructose. The bulbs were also dried for winter use.
Two other very conservative plants grow in close proximity to the Camassia: yellow false foxglove, Aureolaria grandiflora, and false hellebore, Veratrum woodii. And then there’s the dogbane, Apocynum cannabis. An aggressive common native it has taken advantage of the sunny, open woodland and colonized part of this hillside. It spreads by horizontal roots that grow out from the initial taproot which may penetrate 8 feet deep. Dogbane shoots emerge after soil temperature reaches 65’ F. which is after Camassia has bloomed and set seed. But it shades the understory throughout the summer, depriving more desirable summer blooming forbs of adequate sunlight.
Past experience has taught me that aggressive native plants such as dogbane are usually outcompeted when more conservative plants become established. It appears that this process has already begun; bottlebrush grass, Hystrix patula, and panic grass dominate the border of the dogbane patch. Hopefully they will prevail, spread through the dogbane patch, and the dogbane will decline.
Interestingly dogbane was also an important plant for Native Americans. Harvested after autumn leaf fall the stem fibers were used for cordage, thread, or rolled together into material for clothing. Iowa’s Meskwaki Indians plaited the outer bast fiber into heavy cord and also used it as thread. The fibers are currently used in artisan paper making.
References: Moerman, Daniel E. 1998. Native American Ethnobotany. Portland: Timber Press
Earle, A.Scott & James L. Reveal. 2003, Lewis and Clark’s Green World. The Expedition and Its Plants. Helena: Far Country Press